The Politics of ArtPaul R. Jones chose to donate his extensive collection of African American art to the University of Delaware, but not without making sure an HBCU would benefit.
By Robin V. Smiles
On more than one occasion Paul R. Jones has been entangled in some of America’s most politically and racially charged events of the 20th century. At the height of Jim Crow, he was denied admission to the University of Alabama’s law school on the basis of race. During the dawning of the civil rights movement, he weathered controversy by hosting Black and White leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in his Birmingham restaurant. In the late 1960s, he helped mediate the Watts riots in Los Angeles as a community relations specialist for the government. And just months before Watergate, he was in charge of rounding up the Black vote during the campaign to re-elect Nixon.And just as he has mixed business and politics so strategically in his professional life, the 72-year-old Jones has ventured to do the same with his private collection of 1,000 pieces of African American art. The collection includes sculptures, paintings and photographs by Black artists such as Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, David Driskell and Herman “Kofi” Bailey and is currently being appraised to assess its monetary value.“I love my art and I am passionate about it, but I also try not to divorce the business of art — the politics of art,” says Jones.The politics of art?Where others might view a genre such as African American art in isolated grandeur, for a conscious collector such as Jones it is more important to place that glory in the broader context of American art. The result is a chance to put African American artists in, as Jones describes, “their rightful place.”Such politics lies behind his recent decision to donate his collection to the University of Delaware. The president of the university, Dr. David P. Roselle, made the announcement Feb. 14. The university has a strong program in American art, as well as one of the top art conservation programs. Those two elements were key to Jones’ quest to find a home that would not only benefit his collection, but African American artists, students and scholars.
Art as a teaching toolAn Atlanta businessman since 1978, Jones initially wanted his collection to be housed at one of the historically Black colleges in that area. The Howard University alumnus envisioned a setting complete with a curatorial staff and the resources to make the collection readily available for both scholars and students. But the area schools were not able to promise the resources needed to both preserve the collection and utilize it as a teaching tool. As one college president said to Jones, they would not be able to “digest the collection properly.” After exhausting his search among the Atlanta-area HBCUs, Jones turned to the University of Delaware, with whom he had established a working relationship over the past nine years. The University of Delaware had put together an exhibition of his collection in 1993. And in 1998, they sponsored an exhibition of photographs by P.H. Polk from the Jones collection. The story behind the initial meeting between Jones and the university has become local legend around the Newark campus. As the story goes, an art history professor from the university had come to Atlanta to serve on the committee for a doctoral student at Emory University. During the trip, he visited Jones in his home, where the collection was on display. The professor saw the collection, and according to Jones, “in a matter of 10 minutes” was on the phone with folks back at Delaware trying to arrange for an exhibition.Belena Chapp, director of museums at the University of Delaware, was on the receiving end of that first telephone call. “I am glad I said yes,” says Chapp.The two exhibitions were intimate projects that allowed Jones and the University of Delaware to gain a mutual respect. “What captured Jones’ attention was the way that students were involved in those projects,” says Chapp. “From undergraduates to graduate students — art history to sociology students, the university utilized students as colleagues in the museum. We gave them an opportunity to conduct original research and to make contributions in areas that have not been delved into.”Chapp describes the university gallery as a teaching museum. “Students are able to work directly with art objects, and to create in the realm of their experience a tool for communication and learning,” she says. “The goal is to teach students not only to look, but to see — to understand the art in a greater sociological context.”For Jones, the university’s commitment to using art as a teaching tool was key to his decision to donate the collection.“They were committed to renovating space immediately and having some of the collection always on exhibition,” says Jones. They also discussed the possibility of a new building in the future for the collection. At present the collection will be the centerpiece of the university’s new Center for the Study of American Material Culture, which focuses on interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to research and training.
Collaborating with HBCUsEven with the established relationship between Jones and the University of Delaware and its many resources, making that choice — over a historically Black college or university — is likely to evoke criticism. The criticism is a “legitimate concern,” says Chapp. “When a collection of this magnitude is involved, there is often a feeling of disenfranchisement. It is important that the University of Delaware understand and appreciate this collection and what it means to the African American community.”Visiting professor Dr. Amalia Amaki agrees. The criticism is an “understandable reaction,” she says. “But having known Mr. Jones and worked with the collection for a number of years. I know that his decision was not an overnight one, but a long time coming.” Amaki has been involved with the Jones collection for almost 20 years. In fact, she is the doctoral student whose committee meeting initially brought Jones and the University of Delaware together. In addition, some of her own works are featured in his collection.Although Jones could not find an HBCU to house his collection, he has made it a stipulation of his agreement with Delaware that the university collaborate with HBCUs. Amaki is an important link to that collaboration. The artist and art historian has been hired by the University of Delaware to catalog the collection, teach classes, mentor students and work with the Center for American Material Culture. Previously, Amaki was an assistant professor at Spelman College, a historically Black institution in Atlanta, and she worked with the college off and on for almost 10 years. So far, it is Spelman that has been designated as the lead HBCU for partnership with the University of Delaware.Amaki’s expectation, as well as Jones’, is the development of an exchange-type program, where both students and faculty will interact with each other on both campuses. Amaki, for example, plans to have Spelman students assist in her research that will culminate with a book on the Jones collection. According to Jones, the collaboration will benefit both schools. “One would get the benefit of upgrading (in terms of technology and conservation), the other would get the chance to work in a new setting,” he says.Faculty and student exchanges are just one aspect of the proposed collaboration between Spelman and the University of Delaware. Other ideas involve distance learning and teleconferencing, where the collection will be digitized and made accessible to students via the Internet. “The partnership with Spelman is a big undertaking,” says Amaki. “Our hope is that it will be a model for the country and that other institutions will become involved.” Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley, president of Spelman College, also supports Jones’ choice of the University of Delaware. She describes Jones as a personal friend and a friend of Spelman for many years. “Clearly, it is a gift of monumental significance, but it requires resources for maintenance and preservation,” Manley told Black Issues. “I think it was a very wise decision to find the best university in the nation with the track record that the University of Delaware has, for not only art preservation but training in that area as well.”Training in art conservation is one of the main areas that Manley hopes to gain from the collaboration between the two schools. “Spelman has a reservoir of science majors that might be interested in that area,” she says.So far, the partnership has gotten off to a good start, says Manley. Faculty members from both schools are already talking, and plans are under way to establish a summer institute for faculty training.The idea of an HBCU partnering with a mainstream university is no surprise to Mary Lou Hultgren, curator of collections for the historically Black Hampton University in Virginia.“It is no secret that mainstream universities and museums are eager to diversify their collections,” says Hultgren. “Yet the pool is small if you are looking for a comprehensive collection of good quality.”Hampton is often approached by mainstream institutions to share their collection, says Hultgren, who has been with Hampton since 1982. The university has honored these requests several times over the years, collaborating with both Penn State and West Chester University in Pennsylvania.According to Hultgren, this type of collaboration is just the beginning. “There will be more and more institutions courting African American art in the future,” she says.What do African American artists gain by being a part of the educational mainstream? “Greater visibility and more public awareness. They become part of American art history. They really get their rightful place — where they should be,” says Hultgren.
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